Why Birdwatching is Cool

Alexandra Hoadley muses on the hypocrisy of how we perceive bird watchers.

Buzzard – one bird you can spot flying over campus. (Photo: Ben Porter)

To paraphrase the sports commentator turned naturalist Simon Barnes: you look out the window, you see a bird – congratulations you are a birdwatcher!

However, to most people the word birdwatcher conjures up the image of an old man, probably with a beard, hunched over in a cramped wooden hide, waiting to see a rarity with a convoluted name such as the semipalmated sandpiper (don’t worry, I had to Google it). So is it surprising that when I invited one of my closest friends to my local nature reserve of Minsmere in Suffolk, she replied she would come for a walk, but not go into the hides?

Yet ask people if they are interested in nature, and most would reply with at least a moderate yes. Walking and running are popular pastimes, with many favouring local parks for their daily exercise. Family days out to National Trust gardens make for a brilliant Sunday afternoon, and it has been clinically proven that access to green spaces has a positive correlation with improving mental health. Many hospitals have noted that patients whose rooms have a view can often recover faster than those whose do not.

But this moderate yes could become a complete positive just through mentioning one name: David Attenborough. Who can fail to be swept away by his plethora of BBC documentaries – from heart in the mouth megafauna chases in The Hunt, as we pray for the prey to escape; to the intricate details in The Life of Plants, and yes, of Birds? The nation’s imagination has been captured for decades. Sofa naturalists have sprung into existence, fascinated by 5 minute sequences that can take 5 years to film.

Yet why are these forms of enjoying nature separate from that of birdwatching? How has looking for birds become segregated from that of going on safari, or even the joy of seeing something commonly conceived as cute and cuddly, like an otter? Why are some accepted and the other often avoided?

Chaffinch – another common campus bird (Photo: Russell Barnett)

Some people have argued that one phenomenon currently sweeping the world has serious birdwatching connotations. Pokémon Go requires its players to leave the house, and explore local or far-flung places in the hope of finding their own Pokémon creatures. The creation of the creatures was inspired by real wildlife. Players go searching for common Pokémons such as Pidgeys (the equivalent of a pigeon) or rarities like a Hitmonlee (the New York Times likened this creature to a black-bellied plover). A whole wave of new birdwatchers has sprung up, and they don’t even know they’re doing it.

A big part of me also wishes certain scientific discoveries weren’t taken for granted, as they help document the mind-blowing feats birds undertake. One obvious example is migration: here swallows are one of the headline makers. A small bird (around 15cm, the size of your school ruler), weighing 18g flies from South Africa to Europe to raise young – covering 200 miles per day. How have we come to consider that normal? Swifts are one of my favourites – once the young fledge (leave the nest) they do not land again till they have young of their own at 2 years old. These birds eat, sleep and mate on the wing – who wouldn’t want to try all that!

So I hope I’ve helped demonstrate that birdwatching is part of the everyday and the spectacular. Something to include in your walk around the park, another beautiful facet of nature; binoculars (or bins if you want to use to the birdwatching lingo) are optional.